Changes to passport rules in Australia are about to make travel a great deal easier for intersex or trans individuals.

Under the new rules, gender may be recorded on passports as ‘M’, ‘F’ – or ‘X’.

Additionally, trans individuals no longer need to undergo sex reassignment surgery in order to be issued with a passport in their preferred gender, nor – as is currently the case in the UK – will they need to undergo an intrusive review by a government body (gender recognition panel) before they can have that gender accepted.

Instead, according to foreign minister Kevin Rudd, Australians now have “the option of presenting a statement from a medical practitioner supporting their preferred gender”.

The ‘X’ status is reserved solely for intersex people – meaning that the Australian government appears to be the first in the world to legally recognise intersex people.

This is not quite the radical departure that it may at first sight seem: it is certainly not, as as some newspapers, including the UK’s own Guardian, have reported the recognition of a “third gender”.

Rather, it merely allows a “sex not specified” option for those who hold an Australian passport in future. It also makes it far easier for trans individuals to travel in their identified gender.

Reaction from trans and intersex organisations around the world was positive.

Campaigners with the OII Australia, which has been working directly with Kevin Rudd’s office on this issue, were out celebrating on Thursday night.

Australian senator Louise Pratt, the country’s first parliamentary representative with a transgender partner, said the passports reform was an important step forward.

Speaking to ABC Radio she said: “There have been very many cases of people being detained at airports by immigration in foreign countries simply because their passports don’t reflect what they look like.

“It’s very distressing, highly inconvenient and frankly sometimes dangerous.”

She added: “X is really quite important because there are people who are indeed genetically ambiguous and were probably arbitrarily assigned as one sex or the other at birth.”

Warmly welcoming the Australian decision, a spokeswoman for Trans-Aide in France said Australia was “giving a lesson in human rights to France”, which currently refuses to recognise sex reassignment without surgical intervention.

Meanwhile, a UK campaigner for intersex rights, Jennie Kermode, questioned whether a similar step might not now follow in the UK.

She told Pink News: “The passport offices in the UK will not issue passports with the ‘X’ option now, although they could do so without, as I understand it, any necessary change in UK laws.”